Authors: Virginia Budd
An Affair to Remember
© Virginia Budd 2014
Virginia Budd has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
and then Amena
the grandmother of the infant
came to the house and begged she might have his body that Brian
the father of the child
may give him burial
for she and her people were of the Christian Faith
Whereupon the Lady Octavia
laughed at her
and tell your foolish son there was no child and therefore is no body
But Amena was not deceived
And as the Lady Octavia and her betrothed prepared for their journey
for they were to be married in a city far away from that place
she came again to the house to beg once more for the body of the child and again the Lady Octavia denied her
put your own house in order
and look to your son
for there is no child
ordered those servants that remained
afeared of the old woman and her anger
to bear her to her litter that she might commence forthwith upon her journey
From a page of loose manuscript found in the twelfth century
Chronicle of Matthew of Belchester
(Bodleian Library, Oxford)
The Great Yard and paddock at Brown End swelter in the sun, a smell of cow dung and hay mingling with that of the pink cabbage roses sprawled along the wall bordering the lane. Only under Tavey’s tree, its gnarled and twisted branches forming a twiggy canopy over the pantiled roof of the barn that lies along one side of the yard, where the ground is baked dry and splattered with droppings from the absent rooks whose home it is, is it cool, the dense branches of the tree blotting out the harshness of the sun. An estate agent’s
notice leans against the gate into the lane waiting for collection; a tractor grinds its way up the hill to Boggs Farm. From somewhere under the eaves of the barn a sleepy wood pigeon coos.
A tall, grey haired lady dressed in a blue robe, gold at her throat, steps out from the shadow of the trees. Shading her eyes from the sudden glare of the sun, she looks towards the barn. She seems to be searching for someone.
There a hint of desperation in her voice, and she repeats the name several times over, but no one responds to the call, and the rest of her words are lost in the sighing of the gentle summer breeze through the branches above her head; indeed if someone were to be watching they might not be sure that the lady herself is not a mere trick of the light, or the shadow perhaps of a branch reflected in the paving stones of the yard at her feet. A cloud passes briefly over the sun, and a cat asleep amongst the house leeks on the wall wakes, stretches, and jumping down from the wall walks slowly across the yard towards the sleeping house.
High above the turgid traffic of Victoria Street, the windows of her office flung open in the vain hope of trapping some non-existent air, Beatrice Travers hears the lady in blue’s words through the earphones of her stenorette. She notes the desperation, and bewildered – there’s no Brian in the letter she’s supposed to be typing – removes the earphones from her ears and shakes them, although what good that would do she doesn’t know. When she tries re-running the tape, the voice has gone, replaced by that of Mr Taylor boring on about the current price of copper. Could she have dreamed it? Possibly, but somehow the voice, a woman’s; so desperate, so real, the name Brian, repeated several times over, so clear that although she has to admit the few words that followed it are unintelligible, she’s convinced she wasn’t. Could it have been a police message? Sometimes they did get through, God knows how, but this didn’t sound like a police message, did it? And the voice, although rather odd in intonation, seemed somehow familiar. Was it a joke perhaps? Someone in the building? But she didn’t know anyone yet; had only been in the place a few weeks; certainly didn’t know any Brians. She could ask around, she thinks, although it being Friday afternoon, quite a few people would have already gone home. However, whoever’s voice it was needed to get hold of this Brian urgently, no doubt about that. She’d better just check.
She looks down the list of in-house phone numbers; no Brian there. She’d ask Mr Taylor if he knew of a Brian when she took him his letters to sign. If anyone knew of a Brian he would, he’d been in the place since the year dot. It would be awkward asking him though, he’d already made it clear he thought her a bit odd, and would no doubt think her even odder if she claimed voices were sending her messages through his tape machine. However, who cared what he thought of her! Perhaps she was suffering from lack of air; might even start hallucinating if she stayed much longer. An office block like this should have air conditioning, but they’d only installed it in the bottom two floors when the building was modernised, and like everything else it had been done on the cheap. Baffled and distinctly uneasy – she suddenly remembers she’d had an odd, and rather upsetting dream the other night, what it was about had gone, but she’s pretty sure the name Brian came into it – Beatrice returns to her typewriter.
“I’ll sign my letters now, if you’ve finished them,” Mr Taylor, ferret face puce with heat, John Lennon cap at a jaunty angle, appears in the doorway, “I’ve got to dash, Miss Travers, I’ve a meeting at six. Can you ring my wife, and tell her I’ll be late home.”
“I’m on the last one,” Beatrice pushes the pile of neatly typed letters across the desk.
Mr Taylor gives her a look, and producing an extremely expensive looking fountain pen from his breast pocket, pulls the pile of letters towards him, and starts signing.
“How late what?”
“How late home will you be? Mrs Taylor might want to know about supper, and…”
“Tell her I’ll catch a bite while I’m out, and not to wait up. And you can sign that last letter yourself and p.p. my name.”
“I’m glad to hear you trust me.” Mr Taylor gives her another look; is she having him on? Beatrice ignores the look and continues to stuff letters into envelopes.
“Well, er, have a good weekend, Miss Travers.” He returns the fountain pen to his breast pocket and turns to go. “And let’s hope the weather cools down a bit, we could do with a nice heavy shower.”
“We could indeed. Actually, there is just one more thing, Mr Taylor, before you go…”
Resigned, he looks at his watch, plonks his briefcase on her desk, “Yes?”
“You don’t by any chance know of anyone called Brian working on this floor, do you? I know it sounds a bit strange, but I thought I heard somebody calling for a Brian just now through my earphones. One does occasionally get police messages, crossed wires or something, perhaps because we’re so high up, but it didn’t sound like that. It was a woman’s voice and she actually sounded rather desperate. I wondered –”
“Not on this floor there isn’t. However, some twelve hundred people work in this building, and among them, I shouldn’t wonder, any number of Brians. If you really want to know, get on to Personnel. Meanwhile, as you’ve completed the correspondence, there’s a short tape on my desk – a report I’d like finished tonight. It won’t take a minute, and I need to have it ready for Monday morning.”
Little worm! She’s encountered his sort only too often in her not wholly successful career in the world of London offices; the only way to deal with them was to stand firm from the beginning; start, as her friend Sylvia always said, as you mean to go on.
“I’m afraid the report will have to wait until Monday morning, Mr Taylor. I’ll try to get in early and have it ready by the time you arrive. But I’m going to the theatre tonight and simply must leave on time.” Mr Taylor looks at her resentfully, his little eyes behind the rimless specs bright with malice. He decides, however, not to make a stand; she’s bigger than he is for a start.
“I’ve no wish to force you to stay on, of course, Miss Travers, but I do sometimes wonder where the old spirit of office loyalty has gone.” The statement is purely rhetorical, no answer expected. Nevertheless he gets one.
“I’m afraid I think office loyalty’s a bit of a myth, Mr Taylor, something people tend to cling to like the so-called good old days and summer childhoods.” Mr Taylor looks at her in amazement. Stuck up bitch! Why had Personnel wished her on him? Then he remembers the Christmas party. They weren’t still paying him out for that were they, surely? It had, after all, only been a bit of harmless fun. He decides to ignore the remark; picks up his briefcase and, stumbling inelegantly over the piece of worn carpet by the filing cabinets, once again makes for the door.
“Mind how you go, Mr Taylor.”
Cheek! There was something about the woman, he couldn’t put his finger on what it was exactly, but you just never knew where you were with her.
“Night Ron, night Ada.” He puts his head round the door of an adjacent office, but the occupants have already gone home. Is he the only person here who ever does any work? Hurrying along the passage, he reaches the lift just as the doors close.
Mr Taylor departed, Beatrice finishes the tape, signs the last remaining letter, adds it to the waiting pile and tidies up a bit. Mr Taylor’s a fanatic about things being left out, frightened presumably one of his colleagues might come snooping. Then she remembers her promise to ring Mrs Taylor.
“It’s Beatrice Travers, Mrs Taylor, your husband’s secretary. He’s asked me to let you know he’ll be late home tonight, so not to bother with supper.”
“What his excuse this time, then?” Mrs Taylor’s words are slightly slurred; could she possibly be drunk?
“He says he has a meeting, Mrs Taylor, and will take a bite while out.”
“Bully for him!” Yes, she certainly was drunk – who wouldn’t be, married to Mr Taylor.
“Well, er, goodbye then, Mrs Taylor.”
God, other people’s lives! And there she is moaning about her own. She replaces the receiver, switches off the typewriter and stenorette and in a probably futile effort to ward off the tide of depression she feels about to sweep over her, wanders over to the window and stands vacantly looking down at the tops of the buses as far below they wind their way along Victoria Street. It’s so ridiculous to feel depressed . Why should she feel depressed – why should she? Life wasn’t that bad. Look at Mrs Taylor; at the starving poor in Africa, at, well, hundreds and thousands of people who were a million times worse off than herself. Look at all the good things in her life – that was what they said, didn’t they, when you felt depressed, try counting the good things?
She closes the window and, collecting up her various bits and pieces, lets herself out into the passage. At least another working day’s over and she won’t see Mr Taylor until Monday, that was surely something. What’s more, she’s meeting a new man tonight; going to the theatre, what about that? What about it? With a name like Wain Steerforth, he’d be bound to be awful, even if he was what he said he was: a lecturer in English, forty years old and interested in music and drama. Yes, she’d got him through an advertisement, that’s just how low she’d sunk…